The Fall of the House of Usher: Opera Review

Usher Theater Review - P 2013

Usher Theater Review - P 2013

Vigorous interpretation of Edgar Allan Poe’s often ethereal classic punches over Philip Glass’ evocative score.

Philip Glass mind-melds with Edgar Allan Poe via this opera mounted in San Pedro.

Of the now more than 20 operas composed by prolific composer Philip Glass, The Fall of the House of Usher represents something of a turning point from the epic proportions of Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha or Akhnaten (the latter locally premiered by the Long Beach Opera in 2011) toward a more compact, “pocket” style that has afforded him considerable artistic durability over many works despite his trademark deployment of “repetitive means.”

Curiously, this strong piece has neither been much produced nor, apparently, yet recorded. This West Coast premiere mounting, which will move to the Chicago Opera in mid-February, makes a powerful case for its place in the Glass canon, with its inventive design and especially in the forceful directorial take of Ken Cazan. Despite the bloodlessness of the protagonists, this is full-bodied opera that carries a wallop.

Cazan frankly conceives Poe’s story as one of repressed homoerotic desire: The allusive neurasthenia of Roderick Usher (Ryan MacPherson) confines him to the rotting family manse he shares with his dying twin sister Madeline (Suzan Hanson, reprising the wordless role she originated), attended by an army of heavy-metal clad supernumeraries. Roderick urgently summons his long-lost boyhood chum William (Lee Gregory).

Poe was writing in 1839, long before not only Freud but William James, yet his insights into a divided personality remain contemporarily convincing, and this boldly wrought embodiment of inner conflict incontestably posits Madeline as an imaginary fantasy figure, incarnating the split nature of Roderick’s forbidden impulses. Not only does she have no lyrics, but she is always positioned onstage out of sight of the observing William until she is presented as a false corpse about to be entombed alive in her casket even as Roderick is trapped within the prison of his ancestral curse.

Cazan dares to set the action ostensibly within the present, alleviated by imagining William’s voyage as one not only to his own past but to the past itself. This highlights the continuing relevance of the story and leaches it of the musty, epicene quality that usually accompanies other adaptations.

Of course, Glass’ patented late-century arpeggiated strategies tether the material to the era in which it was written. While not as grandly structured as his earlier scores, he is not afraid of dashes of melodrama and mood-setting, and the vocal parts fall distinctively on the ear. It’s modernist, admittedly, but highly euphonious and arguably less adventurous than, say, Debussy’s revolutionary setting of the story. It would be remiss to scant the crucial contribution made by the superior libretto by Arthur Yorinks, which aggressively adapts the original to the demands of the stage.

Gregory anchors the action steadfastly as the narrating character, yet exhibits a tonic ambivalence that allows the audience to share his perspectives, while MacPherson shrewdly opts to make Roderick seem as strong as he may be weak. It has become one of the reliable pleasures of Long Beach Opera to hear Hanson ranging across its daring repertory, and while she makes a more womanly wraith than customary in the many film adaptations, her vocal power and sinuous physical movements transforms a spiritual concoction into a dynamic, even frightening, presence. Artistic director Andreas Mitisek conducts with his usual brisk brio and congenial empathy.

Venue: Warner Grand Theatre, San Pedro (runs through Feb. 3)
Cast: Lee Gregory, Ryan MacPherson, Suzan Hanson, Nick Shelton, Jonathan Mack
Composer: Philip Glass
Libretto: Arthur Yorinks, based on the short story by Edgar Allan Poe
Conductor: Andreas Mitisek
Stage director: Ken Cazan
Set designer: Alan E. Muraoka
Lighting designer: David Jacques
Sound designer: Bob Christian
Presented by Long Beach Opera